We decided to celebrate Heather's Spring Break by taking a 3-day backpacking trip in the Smokies, our first trip of the year. We chose a two-night loop beginning and ending at Smokemont, near Cherokee on the North Carolina side.
Our first hike started out with a spitting rain. With the trees bare of leaves, each line of sight ended in the mist, setting a mysterious mood. Only the laurels and moss provided color to the forest.
We passed no other hikers on the way up to Upper Chasteen Creek (site 48).
Camping at Upper Chasteen Creek was a game of improvisation. Having forgotten her spoon, Heather fashioned one out of a broken, rounded stick. We sanitized it with a flame from the stove, and were back in business in time for dinner.
The campground was too damp for a campfire, so we set up the tent immediately. We passed enough bear signs on the hike up that we took extra precautions to stay safe, cooking far away from our tent site. Between the roaring streams and thick mist, our senses played tricks with us and we were constantly double-taking at rocks and bushes that looked like bears. Fortunately we didn't encounter any.
When it came time to put our packs up in the bear cables, Heather realized she'd forgotten the trash bag that we usually use to keep our gear dry overnight. She improvised, dressing her bag in her raincoat and rainpants. Every time we glimpsed the bag in the corners of our eyes, we'd swear it was a bear, up in a tree, waiting for us.
The next segment of our loop began with a relentless uphill climb, taking us out of the valley and up onto Hughes Ridge. The hike along the ridgeline gave us some great views of the Eastern Smokies, and we didn't pass another hiker all day.
The descent from the ridge down to Cabin Flats was along an old logging road in a deep valley. The wide, flat road was a welcome relief for our legs. A rambling stream accompanied us the whole way, cascading down seemingly endless falls as the sun began to get low on the horizon.
We arrived at Cabin Flats to find the campsite completely full. Our campmate appeared to be college students on spring break, and their sprawling site included hammocks, tents, and coolers. We found a spot isolated by a stand of laurel bushes, and the rushing stream drowned out most of their noise. However, more power to them for seeking out the woods on their vacation.
After dinner, we passed the time by reading Norse mythology and watching the stars. An absent moon gave us one of the starriest nights we've seen in the Smokies.
We broke camp early to head back to the car at Smokemont. It was a chilly morning, but a brisk hike warms you up quickly. The trail home followed Bradley Fork, a big creek that winds all the way back to Smokemont Campground. Finally on a relatively flat trail, we made great time and covered the 5-mile hike in about 2 hours.
When we got back to the car, we noticed a strange noise when we turned on the heat. A rustling sound told us that something was in the ventilation system. We kept the heater off on the drive home, hoping that we weren't carrying any passengers.
Back in Knoxville, we dropped the car off at a mechanic shop and reported what we heard. An hour late, the mechanic called Heather.
"My first question is: Do you want to keep what we found?"
Turns out a family of mice had built a nest in our blower motor over the weekend. The mechanic told us that when he opened up the hood, a mouse was standing on the engine, starting at him in bewilderment. He removed the blower and coaxed out most of the family, keeping them in a shoebox.
All except for one baby mouse, which he couldn't account for. By the time that we needed to pick up the car, he still hadn't found it, but guessed that it has escaped. We haven't heard any noises since, so we're going to keep believing that he ran off into suburban Knoxville to make a new life for himself.